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On October 26, 1979, President Park Chung Hee, who had ruled South Korea since a 1961 coup, was assassinated by Kim Jae Kyu, his director of intelligence. The film depicts the events of that night, with a coda about the fate of each conspirator. While Park dines in the Blue House with two associates and two young women, Kim carries out his plot. He talks briefly of bringing democracy; mostly he seems irritated. The other assassins seem without motive beyond following orders. The killings are bloody, the aftermath equally disorderly and haphazard. Can major events of history be so mundane, so nearly comic? Written by
Four minutes of documentary footage in the movie was censored by the courts which claimed that it would confuse viewers who may believe this film is non-fiction. The film-makers opted to leave four minutes of black screen where the scenes were cut. The film has since been shown in its original version at the Pusan International Film Festival. The Supreme Court overruled its previous case, so the filmmakers were able to add the deleted footage. See more »
KCIA Director Kim at one point refers to the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, which occurred three years after the events depicted in the film. See more »
The English-release title "The President's Last Bang" may sound like an artless literal translation of the original Korean, but I'm informed by those who speak the ancestral language (thanks, Mom and Dad) that "Geuddae geusaramdeul" actually means "The People of That Time," or, more concisely, "Those People, Then." It's a title that resonates deeply for South Koreans: On the night of October 26, 1979, shortly before he was assassinated, President Park Chung-hee was being entertained at dinner by a young singer named Shim Soo-bong, who had made a splash in a college singing contest with a song called "Geuddae geusaram" - literally, "That Person, Then." Shim reportedly sang that song to Park that fateful night; as a result, both she and the song became inextricably linked to the Park killing. Hence the movie title, "Those People, Then."
One of those "people then" was, of course, President Park, along with the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Kim Jae-kyu, who led the assassins and who personally shot the president (and ended up being executed for it). As portrayed in this film, KCIA Director Kim is pent up with rage and frustration; his liver is shot to hell, he feels his country is shot to hell, and he's convinced that the president and his chief bodyguard both deserve to be shot to hell as well.
"The President's Last Bang" has been billed as a black comedy; some American reviewers have even likened it to Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," which kind of threw me. I would say, it's a very wry take on a deadly serious episode of recent Korean history. I suspect much of it comes across as absurd because the real-life events it was based on were so horrifyingly absurd.
Deliberately, deliciously absurd moments abound, like the schoolchildren who refuse to stand still for the playing of the national anthem, but maybe some critics saw signs of comedy where none really exist (oh, those crazy Koreans!). For example, one reviewer was highly amused by what he saw as Kim's bungling when he supposedly runs out of bullets at the start of the assassination and must run outside to fetch another gun. Actually, Kim has plenty of bullets; it's just that his gun jammed. That's not ineptitude, just bad luck on his part.
Although the main focus of the film is the president and the KCIA director, it's also worth noting characters like gum-chewing KCIA Chief Agent Ju, whose primary job consists of procuring young women for the president's personal entertainment; his disgust with the task, with the women who agree to be a party to it, and with himself is palpable. There's also Mr. Shim, the guesthouse caretaker who's as silent as a butler and seemingly privy to everything that's going on. There's the older woman who's seen at the beginning of the film, lodging a complaint about the way her daughter was treated by the president during a bedroom date; we hear her again at the end of the film, offering a sardonic post-assassination wrapup (shades of Costa-Gavras' "Z"). And then there are the two young women, brought together for the first time, who are destined to witness the assassination close-up; afterward, they end up lounging around in a side room, chatting like college roommates.
From my peculiar American point of view, one wickedly fun moment is when Park and his top aides, chatting over dinner, start bad-mouthing not only the American ambassador to Seoul, but also then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter; such scenes crackle with a you-are-there authenticity. It's also morbidly fascinating to listen to the movie's Park Chung-hee rationalize his authoritarian rule by noting that he tolerates a certain degree of political opposition (there's a direct reference to Kim Young-sam, who was fated to become president himself years later).
As for the president's "last bang," fans of the late President Park may actually admire the way he goes out in this film. He shows no fear; he meets his fate as the tough old bird he was reputed to be.
A passing note: Whenever Korean subtitles appear, it's because the characters are speaking in Japanese (one of the fringe benefits of Japanese colonial rule being coerced bilingualism).
Final thought: Could the fractured-English title "The President's Last Bang" be a deliberate Borat-like joke on the part of a Korean who speaks English all too well?
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